Restless with worry, rancher Bill Giorgi recently took a drive with his wife into the Santa Ynez Mountains and solemnly stared at brown pastures that typically gleam a beautiful green this time of year.
Without grass, Giogi can’t feed the hundreds of cattle that graze on some of his 1,500 acres near Nojoqui Grade off Highway 101, land that has been in the family since the 1800s.
In the middle of the worst drought in California’s 160 years of record-keeping — with all but four of the state’s 58 counties declaring natural disaster due to lack of rain — Giogi has sold off two-thirds of his herd so he won’t break the bank buying expensive feeding hay and supplements.
He might unload more to Texas buyers if rain doesn’t fall soon, which prompts painful memories of selling off the entire herd when the water well dried up during the five-year drought in the late 1980s.
Uncertainty keeps the seasoned cowboy up at night, and he’s not the only one shooting agonizing glances skyward.
“We’ve really been hurt in the cattle industry because, basically, we grow grass. That’s what we do,” said Giorgi, who’s pushing 64. “When we don’t have any rainfall, then we have no production.
"All the springs and rivers are dry. About the only bright spot is the cattle prices are up.”
In an effort to help, Gov. Jerry Brown last month declared a drought state of emergency for California, and unveiled a list of livestock disaster-assistance programs through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Bill.
Whether local cattlemen will receive relief remains to be seen, as the rules of the program were still being developed.
More certain, however, are the higher beef prices expected to be passed on to consumers, and leaner living for some struggling ranchers in the meantime.
The price of beef at market may be at an all-time high, but so is the cost of everything else ranchers might turn to as stopgap measures while the drought wears on.
Grass-fed cattle put on the bulk of their weight between now and the middle of May, but most Santa Barbara County areas have seen just fractions of the inches of rain necessary to grow planted seeds.
Drought was clearly on the mind during a gathering last week of local ranchers and California Cattlemen’s Association officials at the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Museum and Parks Janeway Carriage House.
Tim Koopman, association president and a fourth-generation producer, told the group a horror story of a family patriarch who recently went to the grave $300,000 in debt because of drought-relief efforts.
Some were exiting the industry altogether to stave off losses, he said.
Koopman warned that building back herd numbers would be difficult, but found a silver lining in the fact that cows were readily bought up by cattlemen in Texas and Oklahoma — states that experienced little rainfall last year.
Ranchers said this year’s drought was the worst in memory.
“This is probably the worst one I’ve seen in my 70-some years,” said Willy Chamberlin, who helps manage an 8,500-acre family property in Los Olivos. “The only real relief is Mother Nature. This one has hit us from the standpoint that we never got started.
"Right now there’s almost no moisture in the ground. Even good rain is three weeks away from decent grass. These are drastic times.”
Chamberlin said he sent some good cows up the road due to lack of feed. A ranch that boasts 1,500 cattle in February in a good year now has a herd of around 300.
He was forced to buy costly truckloads of hay he usually grows, and has resorted to weaning calves off mothers’ milk earlier than usual so moms require less feed.
“If we don’t get any rain, we will probably have no cattle or damn few cattle when it comes around to the first of June,” Chamberlin said.
The cheapest loss could be the first loss, since ranchers who sell off cattle sooner have a better chance of rationing enough grass for later.
Ranchers can’t afford to irrigate grounds year-round, and the state could suffer billions of dollars in drought-related losses from farming and related businesses, according to estimates by the California Farm Water Coalition.
At some point, reducing herd heads will be the only option, said Santa Barbara rancher Ed Brown, whose family has cattle in California and owns a feed lot in Nebraska.
Brown just hopes everyone doesn’t go to the market at the same time, driving down prices.
“What we always hope for is a steady market that people can depend on,” he said. “When you have a drought like this, it just throws a wrench in the works that you can’t really plan for long term or even short term, for that matter. It looks like it’s going to be tough for a while.”
With grass-growing season arguably already coming to an end, Giorgi will consider drilling a new well — at least a $70,000 project — on land he has worked a lifetime to keep in the family.
Recovery seems far off, and thinning the herd could present more questions than answers.
“If everybody sells this year, and it rains next year, where are all the cattle going to come from?” Giorgi said. “And at what high price?”